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Local Transport
City Driving & Parking

This page last updated July 10, 2022

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German cities, like most major European and world cities, are old and congested. Driving in these cities is generally more of a hassle than a necessity, especially with the excellent public transportation available. Still, there may be times when you want or need a car in town, or just got lost leaving the airport and ended-up in downtown Berlin, so here's some things to know and keep in mind regarding driving and parking in German cities.


On this page:


Driving

The central parts of most German towns and cities feature a lovely system of narrow, disjointed, and often one-way streets. You may find yourself feeling like a rat trapped in a maze. A recent study determined that the average German spends 65 hours a year stuck in traffic or waiting at traffic lights. That said, overall, congestion in German cities is probably no better or worse than other European and world cities. Driving in town, even "downtown", usually isn't too bad if you have experience driving in large urban areas. And after the war, many German cities rebuilt their downtown districts and designed them to make automobile navigation a little easier. Basically, driving in cities in Germany involves the same skill, patience, and sense of humor as driving in cities in the US and elsewhere. Use common sense and pay attention and you should do fine.

Rush hours are generally 7:00-9:00 and 16:00-18:00 on weekdays. In some of the trendy nightlife districts, you may find yourself staring at brake lights until well after 23:00. Popular shopping areas will usually be congested and parking particularly hard to come by on Saturdays.

Physical constraints
The first thing you may notice is that streets in Germany (and Europe in general) are appreciably narrower than those in the US. Having a compact car will make adapting to this substantially easier. Sight lines in towns also are more restricted than typically seen in the US due to buildings being close to the street; convex mirrors are often placed atop poles at intersections or tight turns to assist drivers in seeing around obstructions.

Berlin residential street

Typical town road

Get a good city map, study it, and make sure you know where you're going before you head out. Directional and guide signs may be hard to spot in the urban clutter, so be sure to keep an eye peeled for them (having a passenger on the look out can be especially helpful.)

Multi-level mazes
Several large cities make extensive use of tunnels and multi-level intersections that allow traffic to quickly bypass congested areas. These can sneak-up on unsuspecting drivers and seemingly take them through a wormhole to an alternate universe. Again, make sure you study a good city map before you start out.

Avoid it altogether
You can completely avoid the stress of driving in a city by parking your car somewhere in the outskirts and using public transportation to reach your destination in the city. This will likely save you a considerable amount of time, money, and cursing. You'll find many German cities have outlying park and ride (P+R Anlage) locations marked with "park + ride" signs 
Park & Ride for this purpose.

Sign forest

Example of a Schilderwald

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs
Many Germans describe their streetscape as a "sign forest" (Schilderwald) due to the abundance of traffic signs, so you'll need to pay extra special attention in areas with many signs so that you don't miss an important one. Be especially on lookout for for "do not enter" signs Do not enter and "one way" signs One way -- miss one of these and you might become the new hood ornament on a bus or delivery truck.

To avoid the one-way maze, use larger two-way avenues and boulevards to get as close to your destination as possible, then use the one-ways as needed to finish the job. If you get lost in the one-way rat trap, be warned that a couple of right turns could put you in France instead of back where you started.

Traffic signals are usually easy to see, but sometimes right-of-way signs may be difficult to spot. Also, look closely for parking or no parking signs before you park on the street to make sure that you may legally park there (more about this in the next section.) Especially watch for the many obscure driveways marked with "Ausfahrt freihalten" ("do not block the exit") signs or you may return to find that the police have performed their magic and made your car disappear. Some money will have to disappear from your wallet to make the car reappear.

Keep driveway clear

Don't block driveway sign

Other gotchas
Another sign to watch for is the "bus lane" sign Bus lane -- this sign marks a lane reserved for buses. You'll find these along some major boulevards in the larger cities. You may use this lane only if you're turning right, and you must not enter the lane until just before you make your turn. Other vehicles, including taxis and sometimes bicycles, are allowed to use this lane as well when marked with a corresponding supplemental sign.

Keep a sharp eye out for unmarked intersections, especially in residential areas, and yield the right-of-way to traffic approaching from the right.

Definitely be on the watch for pedestrians. They always have the right-of-way in zebra-marked crosswalks, but oftentimes they'll dart-out between cars and other locations. In residential areas, be on the lookout for children playing near streets-- you're required by law to pass by them at the slowest speed possible. The same holds true if a handicapped or elderly person is in or near the street.

German motorists are rather "trigger-happy" when it comes to green lights. Many drivers are already entering the intersection when the signal turns green, so be prepared to go or expect some cranky honking from the guy behind you just mere microseconds after the green comes on.

Typical town road

Typical town road

Street addressing
You would think that the Germans, with their collective obsessive/compulsive disorder, would have something as simple as house numbering organized to a fault. Instead, you often have to consume a couple of liters of beer before it makes any sense. Generally-speaking, house numbers are not organized by blocks like they are in the US. And while many places have a more logical odd/even scheme on each side of the street, many places do not, in which case buildings were often numbered up one side of the street then back down the other (the so-called "horseshoe numbering".) When more buildings were built along the same street, they repeated the process with the new addition, sometimes using the same street name, sometimes a different street name.

Be aware that multiple storefronts and/or residences can share the same house number if they're all in the same physical building-- in this case, they may have lettered suffixes to differentiate them (but not always.) If buildings were combined at some point, the address may be given as a range, such as "10-14".

Fortunately, most online maps nowadays show the house numbers for individual buildings, so finding a specific address is much easier than it used to be.

With house numbering in disarray, it's no surprise that street names are as well. A street can change names anywhere it wants to (sometimes even in the middle of a block). Attached to each name are the typical suffixes. For instance, Strasse or Straße is "street" and Weg is "lane" or "way". However, Allee is not "alley", but rather "boulevard" or "avenue"; gasse is "alley." There are others, but those are the biggies.

Low emissions zones
Since 2008, local governments have been permitted to establish so-called "environmental zones" (Umweltzone) in order to reduce air pollution in cities and to help Germany reach its carbon-reduction goals. As of 2022, there are 69 such zones in Germany covering nearly every large city and many smaller cities.

Vehicular access to these zones, marked with the "low emissions restriction zone" signs like the one at the left, is restricted to vehicles with the colored emissions sticker(s) (Feinstaubplakette or Umweltplakette) shown on the bottom sign. When the zones were initially established, access was allowed for vehicles displaying either a red, yellow, or green sticker, the color of which indicates the level of pollution the vehicle produces (red being the worst.) Today, restrictions have tightened and nearly all zones are now restricted to vehicles with a green sticker.

If your vehicle does not have the green sticker, which is displayed on the windshield typically on the passenger side, you will have to obtain one before you can drive in a low emissions zone. They can be purchased from vehicle inspection stations, some city governments, and online. You will have to present your vehicle registration certificate, which should have the vehicle's emission standard listed. If you're renting a car, it likely will already have the sticker, but if not, ask for a vehicle that does.

The fine for entering a low emissions zone without the required sticker is €100.

Diesel vehicle ban
ParkingWhile the green emissions sticker designates the cleanest gasoline engines, it is also issued to some older and more polluting diesel engines. In the wake of the Volkswagen diesel scandal in 2015, and with many German cities struggling to bring air pollution levels within EU limits, some states and cities asked the German government to establish a new blue emissions sticker that would exclude those dirtier diesels. However, the federal government demurred, so an environmental group won a lawsuit in 2018 that would allow cities to enact bans on diesel vehicles, and several cities have now also done so, most notably Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, and Darmstadt.

Although commonly called a "diesel ban", the restrictions in fact only apply to older diesel vehicles that don't meet recent EU standards (typically the "Euro 5" or "Euro 6" standards.) In Stuttgart, the restriction applies to the entire low emissions zone (Umweltzone); in the other cities, those vehicles are prohibited only on a few specific streets marked with signs like the one to the right. Generally-speaking, residents, visitors, and/or deliveries are exempted.

Note that even diesel vehicles with a green emission sticker are covered by this ban if they do not meet the indicated Euro standard. Because there is no sticker available to designate these vehicles, enforcement is via random police stops.

These bans are highly controversial in Germany. Additional cities have planned bans that are currently being negotiated or are in litigation. Some cities have compromised and dropped planned diesel bans and instead implemented other restrictions and programs to reduce pollution such as reduced speed limits, increased parking fees and enforcement, and priority transit and bicycle lanes.


Parking

Your biggest problem may not be navigating cities, but finding someplace to (legally) stash your vehicle reasonably close to your destination. In most German cities, you'll have a good selection of parking facilities. There is the ubiquitous on-street parking as well as off-street parking lots (Parkplatz), above-ground garages (Parkhaus), and underground garages (Tiefgarage). Most large cities have extensive parking facilities, and parking maps are usually available from the tourist information offices. Unfortunately, there are often not enough spaces to go around, and you may have to drive around a little while before you find a place, all the while feeling like the losing participant in a round of musical chairs. Still, except on the busiest days and during the peak times, you should be able to find a place within a reasonable amount of time. Costs for parking in Germany can be a little on the pricey side.

On-street parking
Parking on the street is the most common means of parking in Germany. Unless specifically prohibited by a sign or general regulation, on-street parking is usually permitted everywhere (see the parking section of the road rules page for laws regarding on-street parking.) The "parking area" sign Parking along the street specifically indicates where such parking is permitted, although when used it is usually accompanied by additional signs indicating when parking is permitted, who is permitted to park, or requiring the use of a parking permit, voucher, or disc. Here are some examples:

Sign 314
With parking voucher
Sign 314
Sign 1040-32
Sign 314
Residents with permit number
Parking requires purchase of a parking voucher (Parkschein) Parking only with a parking disc
You may only park for the length of time indicated (e.g. 2 hours)
Parking only for residents with indicated permit number

The "parking management area" sign Parking management area  marks the entrance to a neighborhood where parking allowed on all streets in the area (unless otherwise posted) with the use of a parking disc or voucher as indicated by a supplemental sign. This means that this requirement won't be posted on signs on each block-- it's up to you to remember what the rules were on the sign when you entered the neighborhood. The "end of parking management area" sign End of parking management area marks the exit from such an area.

There are many more signs related to parking on the German traffic signs page (page 2) as well as additional vocabulary used on signs.

As noted above, on-street parking may require you to use a parking voucher, parking disc, or parking meter. Here are directions on the use of each:

  • Parking vouchers (Parkschein) ("pay & display"): The supplemental sign "mit Parkschein" requires you to purchase a parking voucher before leaving your vehicle. These are obtained from a nearby machine (Parkscheinautomat)-- look for tall signs marking the location of these, usually mid-block or sometimes on corners (see photos below). While these systems have become widespread in the US over the past decade or so, Germany has been using them since the 1990s.

    The operation of these machines varies but is similar to those found in the US, and  instructions (sometimes in English or with pictures) are typically clearly posted on the front or side. On some, you first locate the parking rates (Parkgebühr) on the front of the machine. Determine how much time you'll need, then deposit the corresponding amount. The display will indicate how many minutes or what expiration date the amount you've inserted will buy. When you're happy with the time shown, press the
    designated "finish" button (often green) and the machine will dispense a small ticket (voucher). On other machines, you start by pressing designated buttons to add time (often a "+" button) until you get to the time you want, then insert your payment. Once you've entered the amount due, the voucher will be dispensed. Note that most machines do not make change. Many machines now accept credit card payments and some now will even allow you to pay using your mobile phone either via an app or SMS message.

    In some case, you can park for a short time for free (typically 15 or
    30 minutes), but you'll still need to get a voucher. There may be a special button for this labeled "Brötchentaste" (literally "bread roll button", in reference to parking for a few minutes to purchase Brötchen at the bakery) or "Kurzparken kostenlos".

    Once you have your voucher, return to your vehicle and place it on the dashboard where it may be easily read from the outside. You must then return to your vehicle before the expiration time shown on the voucher

    If the nearest voucher machine is out of order, you should try to find another one close by; you will usually find another one across the street, at the other end of the block, or around the corner. If you cannot locate another machine, use a parking disc instead (see below); you can then stay up to the maximum length of time shown on the machine or signs.

    Many areas only require you to use a parking vouchers during certain times; check the signs or schedule on the machine. Oftentimes, the machines will shut off when parking vouchers are not required.

Parking voucher machineParking voucher machine

Two varieties of parking voucher machines

  • Parking discs (Parkscheibe): A parking disc is a blue cardboard or plastic card with an adjustable time dial. You can obtain these for free or nominal cost from many gas stations, newsstands, tobacco shops, and police stations. Rental cars should already have them (check the glovebox; if there isn't one, ask the rental agent for one.)

    Signs indicating that you must use a parking disc will also indicate the length of time you can park (see example above). Turn the dial so that the arrow points to the time of your arrival, rounded-up to the next half hour. For example, if you arrive at 10:40, set the disc for 11:00. Then place the disc on your dashboard. You must return to your vehicle within the indicated time period. So, for instance, if you arrived at 10:40 and the signs said that you could park for 2 hours with a parking disc, you would set your disc for 11:00 and you would have to return to your vehicle by 13:00 (1:00pm). As with many things in Germany, this mostly works on the honor system, but spot checks are conducted.

    Many areas only require you to use a parking disc during certain times; be sure to check the signs. Outside of those times, you can usually park as long as you want, but double-check for other signs showing some other restriction.


Parking disc

Parking disc set for 4:30
 

  • Parking meters (Parkuhr): Individual-space parking meters are pretty much extinct in Germany having been replaced by the parking voucher system. If you do stumble upon one, you'll see that they work just like their US counterparts: deposit your money, turn the knob (if there is one), look and see how much time the meter shows, add more money if desired, and return to your vehicle before the time expires. In the event of a defective meter, you must use a parking disc. You may then park up to the maximum time normally permitted at that location (i.e. the maximum time shown on the meter.)

Violations
Parking fines generally range from €10-110 and if you are obstructing traffic or a driveway, your vehicle will almost surely be towed, and quite quickly. In such an event, call the police to settle the situation.

Parking lots and garages
Besides indicating where parking is permitted on the street, the "parking" sign Parking also gives directions to off-street parking facilities. Directions to garages are usually indicated by "parking garage" signs Parking garage. In many larger cities and towns, there are electronic signs indicating which lots and garages are available (Frei) or full (Besetzt), or showing the number of available spaces. Parking facilities are often numbered to assist you in finding them (e.g. lot  P1, garage P2, etc.), especially in downtown areas, large shopping centers, and airports; these are typically marked with the "indexed parking facility" sign 
Indexed parking facility.

Parking availability sign

Parking availability sign

Very few lots and garages in commercial areas allow you to park for free. The ones that do often require you to use a parking disc (see above). The rest require payment, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a lot or garage with an attendant. While some lots use parking vouchers (see above), many use an automated centralized self-pay system.

Like with parking vouchers, these systems operate like those now found in many places in the US. When entering the parking lot/garage, you obtain a time-stamped ticket from the entry gate. Park your vehicle and take this ticket with you.

When you are ready to leave, but before you return to your vehicle, find a parking payment machine (Kassenautomat). These are usually located near the pedestrian entrances to the garage, or centrally in open lots. Insert the ticket you received from the entry gate into the designated slot on the machine and the amount due will be displayed. Pay the amount shown and the machine will return your ticket or dispense a new one. If you also want a receipt, push the button marked "Quittung" immediately thereafter.

Then, return to your vehicle and exit the lot/garage. At the exit gate, insert the ticket into the machine there and the barrier will open. You generally have 15 minutes or so to reach the exit gate from the time you pay. If for some reason you don't make it within this time period, go back to the payment machine and start the process again using the ticket that you received from the previous payment.

(While these systems are now becoming more common in the US, they've been in use in Germany since the 1980s.)

Most lots and garages are open 24 hours; however, some are not open overnight. If you're going to be out late, make sure that the lot or garage you use will still be open when you return!

Parking payment machine

Parking payment machine


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